Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How to Compare Two Enum in Java - Equals vs == vs CompareTo

How do I compare two enum in Java? Should I use == operator or equals() method? What is difference between comparing enum with == and equals() method are some of the tricky Java questions. Until you have solid knowledge of Enum in Java, It can be difficult to answer these question with confidence. By the way unlike comparing String in Java, you can use both == and equals() method to compare Enum, they will produce same result because equals() method of Java.lang.Enum internally uses == to compare enum in Java. Since every Enum in Java implicitly extends java.lang.Enum ,and since equals() method is declared final, there is no chance of overriding equals method in user defined enum. If you are not just checking whether two enum are equal or not, and rather interested in order of different instance of Enum, than you can use compareTo() method of enum to compare two enums. Java.lang.Enum implements Comparable interface and implements compareTo() method. Natural order of enum is defined by the order they are declared in Java code and same order is returned by ordinal() method.

Comparing Enum with equals and ==

Compare Enum in Java - sorting - difference between equals and compareToAs I said earlier, equals method of java.lang.Enum (see below code)  uses == operator to check if two enum are equal. This means, You can compare Enum using both == and equals method. Also equals() method is declared final inside java.lang.Enum, so risk of overriding equals method. Here is the code of equals from java.lang.Enum class
public final boolean equals(Object other) {
        return this==other;

By the way there are subtle difference when you compare enum with == and equals method, which stems from ==  (equality operator) being operator and equals() being method. Some of these points are already discussed in difference between equals and == in Java, but we will see them here with respect to comparing Enums in Java.

1) Using == for comparing Enum can prevent NullPointerException
This one is easy to guess, but same time provide worth of money. If you compare any Enum with null, using == operator, it will result in false, but if you use equals() method to do this check, you may get NullPointerException, unless you are using calling equals in right way as shown in how to avoid NullPointerException in Java. Look at below code, here we are comparing an unknown Shape object with Shape enum which contains CIRCLE, RECTANGLE etc.
private enum Shape{
private enum Status{
        ON, OFF;

Shape unknown = null;
Shape circle = Shape.CIRCLE;
boolean result = unknown == circle; //return false
result = unknown.equals(circle); //throws NullPointerException
I agree this can be avoided by simply comparing known to unknown i.e. circle.equals(unknown), but this is one of the most common coding error Java programmers make. By using == to compare enum, you can completely avoid it.

2) == method provides type safety during compile time
Another advantage of using == to compare enum is, compile time safety. Equality or == operator checks if both enum object are from same enum type or not at compile time itself, while equals() method will also return false but at runtime. Since it's always better to detect errors at compile time, == scores over equals in case of comparing enum. If you are using Eclipse or Netbeans, you can detect these error as soon as you type. By the way Netbeans also shows warning when you call equals() method on two incomparable types, but that is completely IDE specific.

3) == should be faster than equals method
This is more from common sense, using operator should be a touch faster than calling method, and than using operator. Though I believe modern JIT compiler might inline equals() method, when you compare two enums in Java. Which means this would not be big difference in terms of performance.But, without any smartness from compiler or JVM, I think == should always be touch faster.

Comparing Enums with compareTo method

When we say comparing enum, it's not always checking if two enums are equal or not. Sometime you need to compare them for sorting or to arrange them in a particularly order. We know that we can compare objects using Comparable and Comparator in Java and enum is no different, though it provides additional convenience. Java.lang.Enum implements Comparable interface and it's compareTo() method compares only same type of enum. Also natural order of enum is the order in which they are declared in code. As shown on 10 examples of Enum in Java, same order is also maintained by ordinal() method of enum, which is used by EnumSet and EnumMap.
public final int compareTo(E o) {
        Enum other = (Enum)o;
        Enum self = this;
        if (self.getClass() != other.getClass() && // optimization
            self.getDeclaringClass() != other.getDeclaringClass())
            throw new ClassCastException();
        return self.ordinal - other.ordinal;

If you look last line, it's using ordinal to compare two enum in Java.

That's all on How to compare two enum in Java and difference between == and equals to compare two enums. Though using equals() to compare object is considered Java best practice, comparing Enum using == is better than using equals. Don't forget ordinal() and compareTo() methods, which is also key to get natural order of Enum during comparison.

Recommended Reading on Java Enum

If you want to learn more about Enum, I suggest reading following Java books. Books are best resource to learn deep about any topic and I personally follow them as well. Enumeration types chapter from Thinking in Java is particularly useful. 

Thinking in Java (4th Edition) By Bruce Eckel
Java 5.0 Tiger: A Developers notebook
Effective Java by Joshua Bloch




Hi Javin ,

Gr8 article, it will help a developers to understand the concepts more,..few things that I want to like add is...

*** Can == be used on enum?

Yes: enums have tight instance controls that allows you to use == to compare instances. Here's the guarantee provided by the language specification:

JLS 8.9 Enums

An enum type has no instances other than those defined by its enum constants.

It is a compile-time error to attempt to explicitly instantiate an enum type. The final clone method in Enum ensures that enum constants can never be cloned, and the special treatment by the serialization mechanism ensures that duplicate instances are never created as a result of deserialization. Reflective instantiation of enum types is prohibited. Together, these four things ensure that no instances of an enum type exist beyond those defined by the enum constants.

Because there is only one instance of each enum constant, it is permissible to use the == operator in place of the equals method when comparing two object references if it is known that at least one of them refers to an enum constant. (The equals method in Enum is a final method that merely invokes super.equals on its argument and returns the result, thus performing an identity comparison.)

This guarantee is strong enough that Josh Bloch recommends, that if you insist on using the singleton pattern, the best way to implement it is to use a single-element enum (see: Effective Java 2nd Edition, Item 3: Enforce the singleton property with a private constructor or an enum type; also Thread safety in Singleton)

What are the differences between == and equals?

As a reminder, it needs to be said that generally, == is NOT a viable alternative to equals. When it is, however (such as with enum), there are two important differences to consider:

== never throws NullPointerException

enum Color { BLACK, WHITE };

Color nothing = null;
if (nothing == Color.BLACK); // runs fine
if (nothing.equals(Color.BLACK)); // throws NullPointerException
== is subject to type compatibility check at compile time

enum Color { BLACK, WHITE };
enum Chiral { LEFT, RIGHT };

if (Color.BLACK.equals(Chiral.LEFT)); // compiles fine
if (Color.BLACK == Chiral.LEFT); // DOESN'T COMPILE!!! Incompatible types!
Should == be used when applicable?

Bloch specifically mentions that immutable classes that have proper control over their instances can guarantee to their clients that == is usable. enum is specifically mentioned to exemplify.

Item 1: Consider static factory methods instead of constructors

[...] it allows an immutable class to make the guarantee that no two equal instances exist: a.equals(b) if and only if a==b. If a class makes this guarantee, then its clients can use the == operator instead of the equals(Object) method, which may result in improved performance. Enum types provide this guarantee.

To summarize, the arguments for using == on enum are:

It works.
It's faster.
It's safer at run-time.
It's safer at compile-time.

Javin @ ClassLoader in Java said...

As always Great Comment Saral, and thanks for adding value and sharing that JLS reference.

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